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Mackenna - The gold panner from Svaneti

Friday, 05 November 2021 13:36 hits 1099 times

From November to May, when the stream level in Enguri bed declines, he stands in the water the whole day, prospecting for gold. Once, he even found a 22-gram nugget. He was 15 when he started gold panning and has never missed winter in 60 years since.

Everyone calls him Mackenna, according to the Hollywood movie „Mackenna’s Gold.“ Adventure thriller tells the story of searching for mythical gold.

In 1969, the movie release year, Rezo Gurchiani, living in village Tskhumari, was 24. Now, the best prospector who uses the traditional methods to search for gold jokes that even he cannot remember his real name.

For centuries, Svans have been using fleeces to mine gold. They would stretch it on a wooden board and place it in a river. A stream moves the sand, but gold is heavier and sinks in wool. After a fleece is removed from the water and dried out, gold grains can be taken out from it.

Strabo, an ancient Greek geographer, provides us with the first documented information about gold prospecting.

Svaneti was a part of the ancient Colchis Kingdom. Svan goldsmiths have created many golden objects in the past.

Gold of Enguri valley garnered the attention of mining engineers in the 19th century. In 1861, they found a big nugget near the village Atsi. Between 1934 and 1950, the Soviet government executed intensive works of gold-containing sandy grounds.

„Russians machined the whole territory from Khaishi to Heshkili Mountains. My grandmother said she and other women would find at least 4 grams of gold before.“ Thus, the grandmother of Rezo (Mackenna) Gurchiani was one of the first women gold prospectors in Upper Svaneti.

Now fleeces are not used to mine gold anymore. Every day, before he starts the work, Mackenna prays. Then, he places rocks and wooden beams in sections of a river when it turns with bare hands. Gold particles stuck on cliff bottoms.

„We clean the cliff from both sides, not leaving a single crumb. Usually, more is stuck at the bottom and crevices.“

In 2005 government of Georgia handed 39000ha of territory in the Enguri basin, near villages Atsi and Ieli, to „Optical systems Inc.“ to study and extract gold. According to the license, the company could prohibit locals from traditionally prospecting gold. However, the company only started works in 2016, when Gigla Agulashvili, minister of environmental protection, determined the volume of gold supply the company may have. Svans soon stopped the process. Almost 500 residents took the oath not to let the company continue the process.

„Optical systems Inc.“ a brunch of a US-based company, was accused of using cyanide to pick out gold. Cyanide is a poisoning chemical compound.

Using this method means cutting, smashing, and washing the soil to gather gold. This practice, invented in China and Mongolia, significantly damaged the environment. So in 2011, the Mongolian Supreme court prohibited gold mining using this method.

„Optical systems Inc.“ refused to use cyanide and addressed the ministry of internal affairs to start an investigation against protesters.

Department of Environmental Supervision investigated the place and did not find any evidence of chemical substances used in the process.

The company was planning to process 421240m. soil and produce 105kg of gold. Gold, found in Enguri valley, is of the highest purity level.

In 2019 initiative group placed a petition on to acknowledge the traditional Svan method of gold prospecting as non-material cultural heritage. Unfortunately, the National Agency for Cultural Heritage Preservation has not yet discussed this matter.

Lasha Orjonikidze

Multimedia reporter at, a historian by education. Lasha works on topics related to environmental protection, mountainous regions, and social issues. E-mail: [email protected]